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Chapter 05

The First Christian

Robert McKinney

Thursday, January 18, 2024



In chapter five, Keller explores what must be done in light of one’s understanding of how Jesus makes right all that is broken in the world. Examining the resurrected Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb in John 20:1-18, Keller sees two realities about faith. Keller writes, “Christian faith is both impossible and rational (Keller pg. 83).”

Faith is Impossible

Keller points out that over and over again in the gospels, Jesus tells the disciples and many of his listeners that he would die and rise again on the third day. In spite of all these warnings, Mary is nonetheless surprised by the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. Her immediate response to the empty tomb is not to remember what Jesus said and believe, but to run away crying in fear that robbers had stolen his body. 

Mary’s response is a picture, according to Keller, of the impossibility of faith without supernatural help. Few had been as close to Jesus as Mary, but she still cannot fathom that he is truly alive, and so he argues, “Faith is impossible without supernatural intervention by God himself” (Keller pg. 85).

Keller then analyzes the reasons why humans cannot muster up the ability needed for genuine faith. While many will quickly point out our human emotional or psychological need to believe in God, few recognize and admit their need to disbelieve in God. To accept the Bible, including the resurrection, naturally costs the believer some control over his life. Therefore, as prejudiced as one might be toward belief, humans are equally prejudiced against belief. Humans cannot consider the evidence both for and against belief without our own biases. 

Therefore, Keller would have us doubt our doubts. He warns on the one hand making too much of faith, reminding us that perfect objectivity is impossible for humans. Furthermore, he cautions against making the opposite mistake, which is making too much of one’s doubts. The truth is that we are all like Mary and need Jesus to help us believe.  

Faith Is Rational

At the same time, Keller points out that faith is rational. The supernatural intervention it requires makes it no less based on evidence. Keller cites Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the empty tomb yet again. 

He argues that first-century Jews would have rejected the idea of a man raised from the dead in the middle of human history along with the thought that the Son of God could be human. Therefore, the disciples had multiple reasons for not expecting Jesus to rise from the dead, otherwise they would have waited eagerly at the tomb. Therefore, Keller reasons, if these men and women, who had every reason not to believe, came to the opposite conclusion after the resurrection it stands to reason they had very good evidence for doing so—maybe enough evidence to convince or quiet our own inner skeptic. 

Further, Keller points out that Mary was the first eyewitness of the resurrection and consequently the first Christian. No one trying to fabricate the story of Jesus' resurrection, would choose a woman as the first eyewitness. Women’s testimony was considered unreliable and inadmissible in the first century. The only rational conclusion is that the story is true. 

So there is no lack of evidence pointing in the direction of faith, but evidence will only get a person so far because it is impossible to believe with human strength alone. So Keller concludes,

So faith is a gift of God. Built on thinking and evidence, activated by God’s miraculous intervention, based on the radical discovery that Jesus has accomplished everything we need and we can be adopted and accepted into God’s family, and all of this by sheer grace (Keller, pg. 100).

Mary had all the evidence she needed to believe that day as she stood near the empty tomb. But she found more. She found a savior who could do what she couldn’t do on her own. Just by speaking her name, Jesus ignited faith in her heart. 

(.) Something Helpful 

“Doubt your doubts,” writes Keller. Doubting one’s faith is something that many followers of Jesus wrestle with. Doubts are not the exclusive experience of the skeptic. In fact, one way to understand sin is to see it as a failure to believe that what God has said is true and better. This was fundamentally what happened in the garden with Adam and Eve. 

 In our current culture of deconstruction where the misbehavior of leaders and the exposing of corrupt systems has caused many to reexamine what they believe, I think Keller's instructions are very helpful. 

On the one hand Kellers reminds us that faith is a gift from God. It’s not something we can muscle our way into. Because of this, I can live with confidence that even when people I trust and look up to misbehave, or this or that “system” fails me, God certainly has not. I don’t hold on to him; rather, he holds on to me. My questions and my doubts do not intimidate him. 

 On the other hand, Keller gives us confidence that faith is rational. It is not something made up by some gullible cult and its eccentric leader. No, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the  veracity of Christianity’s claims. I can ask questions and critically examine what I believe with confidence that I am not going to be ashamed or afraid of what I find. The burden of proof is actually on those who would discredit my faith, not the other way around. 

(?)  Something to Think About

There is a tendency in some Christian circles to undervalue the rational side of Christianity. Being “Spirit led” or “Spirit filled”, personal experiences, and emotions are valued above things like theological education, expositional preaching, and missional strategy. 

Based upon your reading of Keller, does this imbalance between the rational and irrational seem right? Should they be pitted one against the other, or is there room for both with the average Christian and church?  Can you think of some ways that you personally have valued one of these over the other?  What about your  church? What would it be like for you to adopt a more balanced approach as a follower of Jesus? What might this look like in your church if they valued both the rational and irrational parts of Christianity? 

(!) Something to Do

  1. Don’t be afraid to investigate the truth claims of the bible and of Jesus. You can do so with confidence that nothing you find will in any way undermine its truth. Perhaps you could spend some time asking questions about why it is you believe what you believe. For example, why do you believe in the resurrection? It is undoubtedly an outrageous claim. Do some research into why it is more likely true than not. Ask a pastor to explore with you. 

  2. Resist the temptation to make belief and understanding a formula that can be solved. Humbly acknowledge the reality that without divine intervention, we cannot believe and understand the truth of God’s word. Let this shape the way you approach your study of the bible by adopting a couple of practices:

    1. Before you read, ask God for help. Declare your need for the Spirit’s Illumination and ask God to open your mind and heart to the truth of the words you are about to read. 

    2. After you read and God reveals something to you from His word, don’t let the miracle that just took place be lost upon you. Thank God for it. Praise him for the gift of revelation. 

Questions to Ask Your Cell Group

  • Ask the members of your cell group to share if and how they have ever doubted their faith. Be ready to share your own experience with doubt. 

  • Ask your cell group to share people they know who are skeptical of Christianity and other believers who are struggling with doubt. Spend some time praying for these people. 

  • Ask your cell group if they have ever considered how their own moral failure might compromise the faith of others who look up to them. Discuss this together. 

  • Ask your cell group to consider the ways in which each of you experience ideas and structures that attempt to make Christianity less plausible than it actually is.

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